When describing Urmen Desai, MD, it’s tempting to home in on his impressive résumé: A quick scan of his CV reveals that he holds degrees from Harvard®, Columbia®, MITTM, and BrownTM. You may also notice the words “plastic and reconstructive surgery” blended with unexpected terms like “art.” Yet, despite these objectively impressive feats, distilling Dr. Desai to his bullet-able accomplishments would hardly do him justice.
When I meet Dr. Desai for our interview, he is punctual, peppy, and exceedingly personable — not to mention, stylishly outfitted. He has, for lack of better verbiage, that je ne sais quoi that simply cannot be learned from school (medical or otherwise).
Of course, no surgeon can rest solely on well-tailored suits and charm. It’s Dr. Desai’s work, particularly with breast augmentations, that has garnered him a loyal client base over the years. Today, many of those clients reside in California. “I’ve put my roots down in Beverly Hills,” the double-board certified surgeon says of his eponymous practice.
The Boston native completed residency in Miami, and subsequently practiced in New York City. Before he was zooming across coasts, however, he was exploring rural areas in China and Haiti. Interestingly, it was in these locales — not the glitzy plastic surgery hubs of the United States — where Dr. Desai initially decided to pursue plastic surgery. Below, the doctor shares his story, plus words of career wisdom — including his theory on work-life balance, which might just make you rethink your day job.
Spotlyte: Did you always know you wanted to be a doctor?
Dr. Urmen Desai: When you grow up as an Indian kid in the United States, you're kind of forced to go into a profession where you're going to be successful and have a high income. To some degree, I was a little bit brainwashed into becoming a doctor. But with brainwashing comes what you end up actually wanting to do.
Spotlyte: Tell us a little bit about your path to plastic surgery.
UD: My path was first into neurosurgery; in college, I was a neuroscience major. However, towards the end of my fourth year of medical school, I went to China for a cleft lip and palate project. [A team and I] went to rural Southwest China, close to the Tibet border. We set up a surgical camp, where we operated on young kids. These kids walked for days, took buses for hours, and came out of nowhere to come to our surgical camp to have their cleft lips and palates repaired.
In the United States, you never see people walking around with cleft lips and palates, because they’re repaired before they even leave the hospital [at birth]. But in rural China, and rural communities around the world, they don't really have access to plastic surgeons.
Spotlyte: How many patients did you treat during that trip?
UD: We repaired 200 kids in a matter of two and a half weeks. It’s a quick, 45-minute surgery, and it changed these kids' lives.
Spotlyte: Aside from the aesthetic aspect, how, specifically, did you see this surgery change lives?
UD: In some communities, if your child has a cleft lip, everybody else in the village thinks it's contagious. So nobody can talk to the child, or even go near that kid. Other children cannot play with that kid. The kid can't go to school. They can't have a relationship, obviously. They will never get married . . . or get a job, really.
Spotlyte: So the surgery can be truly life-changing.
UD: Exactly. And the kids’ parents are ostracized from the village, too. So, the surgery can change the whole dynamic of the family. I [realized] that with a quick procedure, you can change lives. So that's when I said, perhaps a career in plastic surgery would be more ideal.
Spotlyte: Do you still do surgical work in developing countries?
UD: Yes. I went to Haiti three times subsequently after that trip to China. The trip was also for cleft lip and palate surgery. We also did some burn surgery.
Spotlyte: Tell us more about the latter.
UD: There are a lot of occupational hazards in these developing countries, and there aren't rules and regulations like we have in the United States. People are cooking with hot oils in their homes, or working on car radiators, and they get burned very easily. Young kids get burned, and they don't really have good burn care.
Spotlyte: On a day-to-day basis, you’re a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. How do you compare the satisfaction you feel from your charitable work to the satisfaction you feel from your 9-to-5?
UD: It is similar but different, in a sense. When you're performing cosmetic plastic surgery in Beverly Hills, patients have a certain expectation for perfection. And when you deliver that, they're grateful. But if what you deliver doesn't meet their expectations, then all bets are off.
But in these developing countries, even if you do 10 percent of an improvement for their condition, they are so grateful. Obviously, that is much more gratifying.
Spotlyte: Speaking of Beverly Hills — Would you say the patients’ desired aesthetic outcome is different from, say, Manhattan or Miami? Generally speaking, of course.
UD: Oh, yeah. The aesthetic is very different. It's much like fashion, you know? Fashion in Paris is different than fashion in Milan, which is different than fashion in New York City.
Spotlyte: What are some specific differences?
UD: In New York, it's a lot about facial rejuvenation — everyone's [bodies are] covered up because it's so cold. In Miami, it's all about having big buttocks. In LA, it's a lot about breasts, because people are on the beach.
Spotlyte: How have these differences impacted the way you perform surgery, if at all?
UD: In LA, they are more entertainers on camera, in movies, on television shows. They don't want to look “done.” So that's a little bit more challenging when you're a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, where you have to perform the surgery without making them look like they've had surgery. Whereas in Miami, patients will get upset if they don't look like they've had surgery.
Spotlyte: Do you think social media has influenced patient expectations? Do people come and show you photos from Instagram®?
UD: Oh, all the time. All the time. It's standard. I'm actually surprised when patients don't come in showing a picture of Kylie Jenner or Emily Ratajkowski. I mean, I know these celebrities because my patients have taught me, educated me, so well.
Spotlyte: Do you ever have to temper expectations? Or do patients know that they won’t always look exactly like the photos they show?
UD: No, they don't know. And I keep repeating myself. I feel like I'm a robot sometimes. I have to say, “You know, I can give you a better version of yourself — but I can't take somebody else's breasts and put them on you.” Much like I can't go to a plastic surgeon and say, “Make me look like Zac Efron.” Because I don't look anything like Zac Efron to begin with. But I can look like a better version of myself.
Spotlyte: What percentage of your work would you say is surgical versus injectables?
UD: Most of my work is surgery, so maybe 10 percent is injectables. A lot of my injectable patients become surgery patients and vice versa. Patients come in for surgery, they convert to injectables.
Spotlyte: Even though you primarily practice surgery, would you also argue that injectables — specifically filler — requires an artistic eye?
UD: Absolutely. You have to know the anatomy of the face, you have to know what planes you're injecting and measuring. And not every patient is the same. You can't inject in the same locations for every patient, or the same volumes in every patient.
Injectable filler is a temporary treatment that adds volume to areas of the face such as the lips, cheeks, and laugh lines. Like any medical treatment, it has potential risks and side effects. Be sure to talk to a licensed provider to see if they’re right for you.
Spotlyte: How do you manage to have free time?
UD: You've got to make the time, you know? If you do what you love, it's not work.
Spotlyte: Care to elaborate?
UD: I'm not punching in and punching out. When you have your own private practice, it becomes a part of you. It's your brand; it’s who you are.
I don't think Beyoncé wakes up in the morning and says, “Oh, I got to go to work today.” It's just who she is. She's Beyoncé, and I'm Dr. Desai. I'm not saying I'm so great, and I'm not comparing myself to any celebrity — I'm just saying [my job] is just naturally who I am. It's what I love to do. Operating and seeing patients is fun. So it's not work, you know?
Spotlyte: You also do reconstructive work. What kinds of cases does that entail?
UD: Maybe a young girl gets a cut to the face. Or a celebrity in Beverly Hills, in Hollywood — we see a lot of actors and actresses — gets a cut on their face. They’ll want a board-certified Beverly Hills plastic surgeon to come repair their laceration.
Sometimes, I have to get up at two in the morning because there may be an actor or an actress in the emergency room who requests a plastic surgeon. Even though it's a little bit painful to wake up at two in the morning, I don't really see that as work. It's pretty cool when you see them on the big screen weeks later, and you're trying to look for the scar, but you can't find it — you're like, “Wow, that's pretty good.”